Have you ever wondered why some peaches are much more difficult to peel than others? Or why some peaches are extremely juicy, while others seem unusually firm? Well, the reason is that a peach is not just a peach.
More than a dozen major peach varieties are generally available in supermarkets. All look essentially the same to the untrained eye, and all are sold under the generic heading "peaches."
However, each of these varieties matures at a different time between May and September, and each has its own set of distinctive characteristics.
The peach season begins in May with the ripening of springcrests and may crests, two early varieties that are firm, juicy and a little tart in flavor. Then come early babcocks, which are sweeter and juicier.
Next to arrive in the market are june ladys, which are a little on the tart side, and flavorcrests, which are the earliest of the easy-peelers. In July and August there are, among others, redtops, elegant ladys and angeluses -- all firm and juicy and all freestones.
Unfortunately, redtops, which dominate the market in July, are a little astringent and not very flavorful, and are difficult to peel. (So much for the main peach of midsummer.)
But next come o'henrys, which are the sweetest, best tasting peach readily available in markets at any point in the season. They are firm, smooth-grained and very juicy. And best of all, these easy-peeling freestones are in season throughout August -- without a doubt the best month for buying peaches.
By September, picking peaches is like playing Russian roulette: It's a tough game to win. Some September varieties are firm and juicy, some are mealy and dry, others are tart and so tender they bruise easily, while still others are almost rock-hard and juiceless.
There are a few old-fashioned varieties that have become hard to find recently, including classic style whites, with their delicate flesh and remarkable flavor, and elbertas, the tender and juicy yellow-fleshed freestones that are the ancestors of most of the peaches in commerce today.
Elbertas, in particular, almost never appear in supermarkets, but there still are farmers in the Delmarva and Tidewater regions who continue to grow some of the old varieties and sell their peaches at roadside stands. This August, when you drive into the country looking for vine-ripened tomatoes and silver queen corn, ask if there are any elbertas. Then take a bite of a great old peach.
There's more than one way to peel a peach, but my favorite method gets extra points because it not only works well, it's fun, too.
Start with a plump, fresh peach that yields slightly when it's held in the palm of your hand and is squeezed slightly. Using the back (dull) edge of a table knife, rub the entire surface of the peach. Be careful not to break the skin, but rub with enough force to separate it from the flesh. Now make a slit in the skin and pull out a perfectly peeled peach.